Sexual revolution alive and well on streets of Havana as Cubans cope with Castro's austerity


Cuba Letter:Cubans joke that the one thing their government cannot not ration is sex

Cuba is sexy. Poor thing, it can't help it. Humidity kisses your skin like moist suede; cuba libres caress your tongue; and tropical rhythms set hips swivelling. Sensual art and music, cigars, mojitos and Comrade Che are all-pervading.

Along the Malecon, Havana's seafront promenade, girls in five-inch heels hug their boys nightly against wave-splashed walls. Men hiss "piropos", flirty come-ons. jineterismo - sex tourism - is alive in Cuba, judging by touts hissing "Quieres chicos - want guys?"

The "casas particulares", where rooms can be rented by the hour, survive discreetly. This society is pre-tech but not post-sex. What you gonna do?

"Yes, it's nuestra fama, our reputation - our stigma, if you will. But it's why we're still here, why we're happy. It continues the human race," says the lovely Mariela Castro.

The daughter of President Raúl Castro, she heads the Cuban Centre for Sex Education (Cenesex) in Havana. She laughs, radiating benign tolerance.

"We promote a lot of causes: women's rights, gay rights, LGBT rights. Diversity is natural. The one cause we'll never promote is abstinence."


A mother of three in a T-shirt and cotton skirt, she wears no make-up. Her concession to fashion is a pair of cute boots. Outside her offices in the city's Vedado district, several transsexuals await medical or psychiatric counselling. One, Vanessa, bears a resemblance to her idol Amy Winehouse.

In 1959, following the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, Mariela's mother ,Vilma Espin, brought in women's rights, reproductive rights and equal pay. Contraceptives are part of sex education in school.

Mariela is a former psychiatrist with LGBT patients she grew to love. She has introduced transgender surgery (free), anti-homophobia policies and gay pride days, and publishes the quarterly Sexology.

"I think we're the only country with these policies," she says.

She goes on to complain about imported condoms restricted under the US embargo. (At least they're cheap at three for a peso.)

Havana was once America's brothel. Sex has since been the one thing never scarce under Fidel Castro, though things got so bad in the 1990s, after the Soviet collapse, thanks to underpaying state jobs, that in 1998 Castro declared a crackdown on jineterismo, saying there were thousands of Cuban prostitutes - the healthiest and best-educated in the world, he told Time.

But the former "tropical buffet of sin", as Christopher Baker put it in Mi Moto Fidel, remains. Every Cuban male yearns for a mulatta, or mixed Afro or Chino-Cuban girl, while girls in turn yearn for a sugar daddy. Sex on first date? A given, Baker says.

Eros amply gratified

In his book Cuba: a Journey, Jacobo Timerman writes disapprovingly: "Eros is amply gratified in Cuba and needs no stimulation. A joyous eroticism pervades Cuban men and women alike . . . Seduction is a national pastime pursued . . . and the fresh expression of a high-spirited people confined in an authoritarian world. After all, Cubans joke, sex is the only thing Castro can't ration."

While I was writing this, the Caribbean glittered in front of me in Cienfuegos as Cuba's oldest band, Los Naranjos, played a rumba, and Simon, an 80-year-old "rumbero" asked me to dance. So my hips said yes.

I ask Gustavo, nearest Cuban sexpert, how many salsas and rumbas are about "vaccination" (his word for sex) and he replies promptly: "Around 90 per cent."

What are the other 10 per cent about? "Food."

The culinary terms, like others, are mostly metaphors. Compay Segundo's song Chan Chan is about "sifting sand" on the beach (nudge) with his sweetie. Tula's bedroom is "on fire" yet again (nudge, nudge).

If Cuban songs are metaphors, paintings draw on Afro-Cuban roots. Santeria, the religion imported by slaves, has been absorbed into Cuban identity and is in everything from dance to painting.

Roosters prevail, a nod to Changó, god of virility (no wonder the Hemingway cult remains strong). Oshun is the flirtatious goddess of love. Eleggua is the naughty boy who makes mischief and his sign is a hooked stick and three shells. Once you know, you see signs everywhere.

"It's a huge part of what we Cubans are," says Natalia Bolivar, respected author and expert on Cuban religion.

Back in Miami, the tired Cuban immigration officer asks if I have any rum. "No, I drank it all over there," I say.

He looks sad. "Where?" Everywhere! Including the Hemingway bar at Cojimar, I say. Where was he from? Havana, he replied.

What does he you miss?

"I miss my girlfriends," he says with a sigh.

Spoken like a true Cuban.